The Planter of Modern Life: How a Forgotten Visionary Pioneered Permaculture and Revolutionized Our Relationship with the Land

“Some day… there will come a reckoning. The country will discover… that no nation can exist or have any solidity which ignores the land. But it will cost the country dear.”

The Planter of Modern Life: How a Forgotten Visionary Pioneered Permaculture and Revolutionized Our Relationship with the Land

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in his exquisite 1960 meditation on nature, human nature, and the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.” Six years earlier, Rachel Carson had invited an elemental remembering as she considered our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

Humanity found an unorthodox champion for that fundamental bond to our roots in a generation prior to Carson and Eiseley. Louis Bromfield (December 27, 1896–March 18, 1956), who regarded his Pulitzer Prize and Hollywood’s adulation as satisfactions far inferior to the infinite gladnesses of the garden, the farm, the irrepressible life of nature that he both nurtured and was nurtured by.

Louis Bromfield. Photo courtesy

Louis Bromfield — a middle-class Midwesterner who had worked as an ambulance driver during the First World War and had spent the 1920s living in a rented old rectory in Paris with his typewriter and his giant gramophone — was Gertrude Stein’s favorite American novelist and the Lost Generation’s favorite Ivy League dropout. He was Doris Duke’s lover and Humphrey Bogart’s best man. Joel Salatin used him as a model and inspiration for Wendell Berry. E.B. White looked at White in a poetry. Edith Wharton felt more seen by him than by anyone else — seen for something invisible and incommunicable to others, something “tremblingly and inarticulately awake to every detail of wind-warped fern and wide-eyed briar rose.”

Because he was also aware of the delicate beauty of nature, and their delicate relationship with each other, he saw her. This enticed him to create a new way to relate to the land. His celebrity would help him to bring that passion to the attention of the general public and create a new awareness.

Word EcologyThe term “organic food” was not invented until a generation prior to his birth. Rachel Carson had yet to popularize it and bring it out of academicobscurity. At a time when the phrase “organic food” would have baffled with its Frankensteining of chemistry and cuisine, Louis Bromfield envisioned a time when the makers of consumer packaged goods would use a special label verifying that their foods were untouched by chemicals. Before the term “sustainable agriculture” meant anything to anyone, he built and passionately tended to an organic permaculture farm, sustainable and regenerative, not in exploitation of but in relationship with the land and its living ecosystems.

Tomato, or Love-Apple, from Elizabeth Blackwell’s pioneering 1737 encyclopedia. Available as a printed version, with The Nature Conservancy.

Bromfield’s far-reaching vision and his disarming devotion to it come alive in Stephen Heyman’s wonderful biography — of a person, of an idea, of an epoch — The Planter of Modern Life: How an Ohio Farm Boy Conquered Literary Paris, Fed the Lost Generation, and Sowed the Seeds of the Organic Food Movement (public library).

Bromfield appears in stark relief by Heyman, against the backdrop to his time and place

Dorothy Parker (E. B. White, Archibald MacLeish: All of them had farms in one way or another. They were dabblers and amateur farmers, but they treated the rural land as a backdrop, not a subject. Bromfield was an exception. Bromfield would turn agriculture into literature, something that neither his contemporaries nor forefathers could do. The first great writer to fully embrace the potentialities and problems of farming, to dive into it in order to be a modern farmer, he was also the first. He saw farming as a passion, platform and almost a religion. He didn’t just want to farm but wanted to alter the way that farmers were perceived. His celebrity, his creativity, his money — all of it would eventually go into the compost pile.

Bromfield was animated by the recognition that farming is not only supreme training ground for self-reliance — a practice powered by the selfsame qualities one needs in times of crisis and turmoil — but a spiritual practice that trains the soul on humility, on integrity, on compassion: seeds of flourishing, the succulent fruits of which are readily available to the farmer year-round. Heyman writes

Later in life, Bromfield would give his definition of a “good farmer,” and it was both lofty and long. A farmer, he said, should be “a horticulturalist, a mechanic, a botanist, an ecologist, a veterinarian, a biologist and many other things.” He should have an open mind that was “ready to absorb new knowledge and new ideas.” But knowledge was “not enough.” He needed, most importantly, two traits which “could not be acquired,” which were “almost mystical qualities.” These were “a passion for the soil” and an “understanding and sympathy with animals.” In other words, Bromfield thought, a good farmer needed to be a little teched.


A good farmer, Bromfield said, is “the happiest of men for he inhabits a world that is filled with wonder and excitement over which he rules as a small god.”

Louis Bromfield. (Photograph: National Endowment for the Humanities.

On his unexampled Malabar Farm in Ohio — so famed that it became the setting of the opening scene of Shawshank Redemption — Bromfield complained the way all artists do: by creating. “Most of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet,” he rued. At Malabar, everything under and over and between was one cohesive symphony of sustainability, for the enduring harmony of which he felt — and was — responsible, and rapturously so. Louis Bromfield created an interleaved marvelland that was a time-preceded epoch out of this responsibility.

To pollinate orchards, there were beehives. An enormous ditch was constructed to capture floodwater from the hillsides and slowly release it instead of completely destroying everything. The crop rotation was meticulous, with corn being the most common species, while alfalfa and alfalfa replenish nitrogen. The cows would graze on the fields, providing most of the required nitrogen through the byproducts from their metabolism. Limestone and phosphorus were then added to the ground. Cover crops of legumes shielded the vulnerable top fields from erosion and were often intentionally left to compost into the earth as “green manure” further enriching the soil. On the most steep slopes, soil binding was done with green hay and grasses. The overgrazed forest was surrounded by a hedge that contained new trees to protect the cows and help the old growth recover.

Louis Bromfield led a chorus that sang all the way through, which was called “Chorus of Liveliness”.

Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal 1737. Print available, with proceeds going to The Nature Conservancy

Hayman describes this amazing transformation:

Below the Big House, the swampy lot of hogs was transformed into a garden that has a spring running through it. This stream is no longer dry in summertime. The garden fencing was climbed by Concord, Niagara and Golden Muscat grapevines. In the shade, Bromfield let healthy brambles of raspberries and blackberries run wild — never cultivating them but just mulching once a year. He saw rich fields and flowering shrubs where once was a hillside. Rainwater did not rush down the hills, but instead raked the ground in torrential brown drops. Crop rows that hugged the terrain were shaped by their contours. The apple orchard was surrounded by thick layers of sodgrass. New trees were planted, including plums and pears. Bumblebees, working “in platoons,” pollinated the fruit trees as well as the pastures of clover and alsike. He planted a row of locust trees to feed the bees — and to pour more nitrogen into the soil (since locusts are also a legume). Their blossoms drifted in the Big House and he loved their scent. The moonlight lit up the pond and he enjoyed watching the muskrats. He loved standing in a field of corn in midsummer and listening for the “faint crackling sound” as “the stalk increases its circumference cell by cell.”

Bromfield, himself, was overwhelmed by the transformation of this land in just a few years.

The speed at which nature responds is amazing. There is now abundance where once there was little.

Nothing — not his Pulitzer Prize, not the ardors of Paris, not Hollywood’s argent flatteries — was more rewarding to him:

My travel, my experience — nothing I have ever done has given me nearly as much satisfaction as this bit of land and what we have been able to do with it. It is a great pleasure to go out each morning to see the amazing changes that have occurred, which continue to happen, and will continue until the end.

But Bromfield saw this work as far more than the work of pleasure — he saw it as a moral obligation. Two days before Pearl Harbor, and an epoch after Walt Whitman admonished that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Bromfield told the audience at a war rally that “we are in more danger of destroying ourselves” than of “being destroyed” — that America’s grimmest war was the one it had already launched on the environment. (The term itself is grimly alienating, implying that we are merely surrounded by nature and denying that we are nature, too — a term we still use, the eradication of which might one day mark our true awakening to our natural bond with the rest of nature.)

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie.

One of Bromfield’s fictional protagonists contoured the future he seeded — the future that is only just cusping on the horizon of our present as a hopeful fact — in a passage from his 1933 autobiographical novel The Farm:

Some day… there will come a reckoning. It will be obvious that the country needs farmers more than salesmen traveling around, and that there is no solidity or existence that ignores land. It will be costly for the country. There’ll be hell to pay before they find out.

The Planter of Modern Life is an inspiriting read in its entirety — the kind that restores your faith in the humans that make humanity. The Planter of Modern Life can be complemented with this century-old field guide of wonders by another visionary, born before Bromfield. She laid the foundation for our Youth Climate Action movement. Next, read the story about Rachel Carson’s awakening of the modern ecological imagination.

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